Five myths about language teachingAug 26, 2021
By James Jenkin
If you’re planning to become an EFL teacher – great! In my opinion, it’s one of the most interesting, varied and rewarding career paths possible.
The world needs English teachers. In 2006 the British Council estimated by 2021 the number of learners would double from one to two billion (Graddol, 2006:14). In China alone, it’s estimated up to 350 million people are learning English (Wei & Su, 2012:10).
But the world needs not any English teachers, but good English teachers. For this reason, I’d like to draw your attention to some very widely-held beliefs about teaching that I argue are simply false. They have negative consequences on students. We as teachers should be aware of these beliefs and challenge them.
These beliefs seem to come largely from our experience as language learners at school. But if you studied French at school for six years and still can’t speak it, perhaps something’s not right!
Myth One: Native speakers make the best teachers
English is the world’s lingua franca. This means the context in which English is being used around the world is mostly communication between so called ‘non-native’ speakers: for example, a Chinese salesperson negotiating a business deal in English with a Japanese client.
Sounding like a so-called 'native’ speaker is irrelevant to most of these users. What they value is a teacher with a high level of English and teaching skills, not someone who happens to be from the inner-circle countries (i.e., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, USA).
Non-native speaker teachers also bring unique strengths. Having been learners themselves, they can be more skilled at analyzing language and understanding challenges faced by learners. A non-native speaker can also be a role model and an inspiration to students – if the teacher has reached a high level of English from knowing nothing, students feel they can too.
Myth Two: Teaching English largely involves explaining rules
Language is a skill, like driving or cooking. To become good at English, you have to do it, not just learn about it. Imagine if you went to a driving lesson, and you sat in a chair while someone told you about driving. Would you leave that class being able to drive?
Therefore, lessons need to provide lots of opportunities for practice. And one of the most useful things a teacher can do is give feedback to individual students while they're practicing.
Of course, in an English class or a driving lesson, students need to learn how to do things. But teaching should be efficient. It only takes a minute to show, for example, ‘if there’s more than one you need -s’. And consider alternatives to ‘explaining’: for instance, provide examples, and have students work out the rules themselves.
Myth Three: The teacher should talk a lot
I suggested students need a lot of time to practice in class. Indeed, there’s a truism in EFL: Student Talking Time should be high, while Teacher Talking Time should be low.
But that’s often not what happens. A lot of English classrooms around the world have a teacher standing out the front talking about English (often in the students’ first language), while students sit and listen.
There might be a few reasons for this. Maybe we feel we’re not doing our job if we’re not up the front. Maybe we just do it to mimic our teachers, or Hollywood movies, where the young, charismatic college professor is always saying something fascinating to the class.
If you ask a language teacher why they talk a lot, they might suggest they’re giving students listening practice. But listening to the same person, removed from a real-life context, is not rich input. And it’s boring.
If we really want to help students develop listening skills, we need to provide a range of input in real-world contexts (for example, the news, a customer and a waiter, two friends talking). Students also need preparation and guidance on how to listen, so they can progress from understanding the main idea to detail to nuance.
It’s true, children have different needs from adults. They need more teacher input and scaffolding. But this teacher talk needs to be planned and have a clear purpose.
Myth Four: Teachers need an outgoing personality
Another common misconception is that teachers need to be entertainers. This, it’s believed, is the only way to maintain students’ interest.
It’s true in some situations – such as teaching high-school students forced to come to language class – we might need to have a super-fun, high-energy style.
However, some of the most effective lessons I’ve observed, with the most engaged students, have been taught by quiet, and even shy, teachers. How is that possible?
These teachers are able to make students the centre of the lesson. They plan useful and interesting activities for students to work on in pairs and groups. The teacher then spends most of the class moving around the room, helping and giving feedback.
These teachers also give students opportunities to shine. They let students have the floor, be interesting and funny, and have the last word on a topic. Students leave these classes feeling great about themselves, and about English.
Myth Five: There’s a ‘best way’ to learn a language
Students often, understandably, ask for advice on how to improve their English. Should I learn songs? Memorize texts? Watch movies? Approach foreigners on the street? Listen to a recording in my sleep?
Unfortunately, there’s no one correct answer. (Although ‘methods’ – like Suggestopedia – have pushed the idea there is one ‘best way’, often to sell a product.)
But we can give some sound advice: learners should do what they want to do.
If students enjoy an activity, and look forward to it, they will actually do it. They’ll want to use English. It makes no difference what the activity is.
If we insist there’s one best way of recording vocabulary or practicing writing, but students dislike doing it, they won’t do it. The likely result is they'll feel guilty for avoiding working on their English, and they'll resent having to learn it.
The best help we can give is to suggest a range of activities, and each individual can try what sounds fun and interesting to them.
Graddol, D. (2006). English Next: Why global English may mean the end of ‘English as a Foreign Language’. British Council.
Wei, R. & Su, J. (2012). The statistics of English in China. English Today, 28(3), pp. 10-14.
James Jenkin has worked in the field of TESOL for over twenty years as a teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum designer and academic manager. He is an IELTS examiner and has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Monash University, Australia.
Image source: shutterstock.com/imtmphoto